Emma Karas has traveled with her family from Kamakura, Japan to America with her family so her mother can receive cancer treatment. Emma, her younger brother Toby and her parents left shortly after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although Emma was born in the United States, she has lived most of her life in Japan and considers herself Japanese. When she was in grade 9, Emma transferred from a Japanese school to an international school. It was during this year that the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan. Although her family was fine, some of her friends lost relatives. Emma and her father helped her best friend, Madoka and her dad clean up Madoka's grandparent's home in Miyagi. During the cleanup, Emma learns her mother is sick and that they must leave for America. Emma's plans to play varsity volleyball, attend a Model UN conference in the Philippines and to visit her friend Madoka were put on hold as their lives undergo a drastic change.
Now Emma finds herself, her mother and Toby living in a small town outside Lowell, Massachusetts,with her father's mother, YiaYia, while her father works in his firm's office in New York. She is enrolled in grade 10 at the local high school. Emma misses her father and her friends, Madoka, Kako, Kenji, Shin in Japan. In addition to coping with her mother's illness, Emma feels like she has abandoned her Japanese friends when their need was greatest. The stress of all these changes and her mother's illness leads her to suffer from severe migraines.
Hoping to help her granddaughter adjust to life in America, YiaYia arranges for Emma to volunteer at the Newall Center for Long Term Care as a poetry helper. Emma's first time at the center is marred by a migraine which causes her to collapse. A fellow student Sam Nang, whom she was supposed to meet there, arranges for her to be taken to back to her aunt's home. Samnang's kindness to her is that start of a friendship that will blossom into a romance.
At the Newall Center, Emma is paired with a 46 year old woman who has "locked in syndrome" and who can only communicate using her eyes. To communicate with Zena, Emma must use a special letter board. Samnang is paired with two men Leap Sok and Chea Pen who are Cambodian and who escaped the Pol Pot regime years ago.
Emma learns that Samnang is Cambodian and that there is a large Cambodian refugee population in Lowell, Massachusetts. He is part of a Khmer dance troupe and as Emma and Samnang's friendship develops she also learns that his life hasn't been an easy one. Emma can relate to some of Samnang's struggles to find his place in America. Although she is white, she feels Japanese. But in America, she doesn't look like she's out of place.
it's not just losing
it's as if I've lost
half of myself here
but no one knows
because I'm a white girl
I don't look like I belong in Japan
I don't look out of place
everyone thinks I must be glad
to be "back" in Massachusetts
as if this were home
but it's not
As she tells Samnang, the language inside her is different from the language outside.
Emma's work with Zena makes her realize how much her mother will need her in the coming weeks and months as she recovers from breast cancer. She wants to go back to Japan, but she doesn't want to be like Zena's daughter who "swam off with her sister" leaving her alone in the rehabilitation center. She begins to recognize that maybe she has a duty to help her mother as she struggles to heal from her illness.
In addition to this Emma begins to realize that she has many good things in her new life in America, not the least of which is her friendship with Samnang and her growing relationship with the Cambodian community. When her parents give her the option of returning to Japan with her father, Emma must make a difficult decision, one that will affect her life for years to come.
The Language Inside is a beautifully crafted novel that tackles many different issues and does so very ably. There is the overarching theme of identity with Emma who is American but who feels Japanese inside and Samnang who is American but feels Cambodian. This struggle is reflected in the book's title about the language inside (that is how we feel and who we are) being different than what appears to be on the outside. Through dance both Samnang and eventually Emma begin to reconcile their two worlds.
This theme of identity is also expressed in the character of Zena who has "locked-in syndrome". On the outside Zena appears to be a person who can't communicate, appearing to have a life that is very limited. But Zena has a remarkable inner life that is trapped within her. Because she cannot readily communicate, her thoughts or "language" remains trapped inside her. Emma helps Zena to bring this "language inside" to those around her, through the creation of her poetry.
Zena was modeled after Julia Tavalaro, who was a 31 year old mother who suffered a debilitating stroke that left her paralyzed and apparently unconscious. Many years later it was discovered that Julia was fully aware of the world around her and she was able to communicate using the motions of her eyes and head. You can read about Julia's story here.
Holly Thompson's rich free verse captures equally well the fear and hurt of a young girl struggling to cope with a new life and a family crisis, as well as the blossoming of a first love. Well written, evocative and fascinating, this lovely novel is for fans of poetry and also for those who wish to sample this genre.
Thompson who was born in America, lives in Japan. This is her second verse novel and is even better than her debut, Orchards.
The Language Inside by Holly Thompson
New York: Delacourte Press 2013